Religious Freedom Around the World

Annual Report Published by U.S. Commission

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WASHINGTON, D.C., MAY 14, 2005 ( On Wednesday the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) presented its annual report on religious freedom. Along with the report, the commission announced its 2005 recommendations to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on “countries of particular concern” (CPCs).

USCIRF was established under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act and is composed of 10 members. It is not part of the State Department and is independent from the executive branch of government.

This year the commission added Uzbekistan to the list of CPCs. This list is made up of countries whose governments “have engaged in or tolerated systematic and egregious violations of the universal right to freedom of religion or belief”, the commission explained. The other variation this year was the removal of India from the list. The other countries – Burma, North Korea, Eritrea, Iran, Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam – remain the same as in last year’s report.

Following the recommendations by the commission it is up to the U.S. secretary of state to designate which countries are formally declared to be CPCs. In September 2004, Secretary of State Colin Powell re-designated Burma, China, Iran, North Korea and Sudan as CPCs. And, for the first time, Powell designated as CPCs Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Eritrea.

In addition to asking that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice re-designate the 8 countries named last year as CPCs, the commission explained why it is asking that Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan be added.

In Pakistan, the government fails to provide an adequate response to vigilante violence carried out be Sunni Muslim militants against other believers, the commission explained. Moreover, there are problems with discriminatory legislation and false blasphemy allegations. And, so far: “Belated efforts to curb extremism through reform of Pakistan’s thousands of Islamic religious schools appear to have had little effect.”

In Turkmenistan the commission argued that President Saparmurat Niyazov’s “absolute control” over society renders any independent religious activity impossible. And the president “is also imposing an increasingly oppressive personality cult that impinges on all aspects of public life in the country.”

A restrictive law on religion “severely limits the ability of religious communities to function in Uzbekistan,” the commission noted. The government imposes strict controls over the manner in which the Islamic faith is practiced. This has led to the imprisonment of thousands of persons in recent years, many of whom are denied the right to due process, according to the commission.

Watch List

The commission also has a Watch List of countries. The violations of religious freedom in these nations are serious, but not grave enough for them to be included on the list of CPCs. Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia and Nigeria remain on the Watch List from last year, with Bangladesh being added. Laos and Georgia were removed, even though the commission said that concerns about religious freedom in both these countries persist. As well, the commission said that it is closely monitoring the situations in Afghanistan, India, Iraq and Russia.

In Belarus the commission commented that authorities persist in enforcing the harsh 2002 law on religion. This creates “calculated and serious regulatory obstacles and bureaucratic and legal restrictions on the activities of many religious communities.”

Religious belief and practice continue to be tightly controlled in Cuba. As well, religious freedom has been also been affected by the government’s crackdown on democracy and free speech activists.

In its visit to Egypt last year, the commission “found that serious problems of discrimination, intolerance, and other human rights violations against members of religious minorities, including non-conforming Muslims, remain widespread.”

Regarding Indonesia the commission said that even though the situation has improved since 2002, concerns remain about sectarian violence and the government’s “inability or unwillingness to hold those responsible to account.” While in Nigeria the government was also faulted for its inadequate response to continuing violent communal conflicts along religious lines. In addition, problems remain concerning the expansion of Islamic law into the criminal codes of several northern Nigerian states, and discrimination against minority communities of Christians and Muslims.

Concerning the request to add Bangladesh to the Watch List, the commission observed that it “is concerned that democratic institutions and constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion are threatened by religious extremism and by the country’s chronic political strife.” Problems include attacks by Islamic militants on politicians and members of religious minorities.

As for Russia, the commission said that conditions of religious freedom “have deteriorated in recent years.” Concerns range from a growing authoritarianism by the government, favored treatment for the Russian Orthodox Church, prevention of some groups from registering and being able to practice freely, and acts of anti-Semitism.

Positive developments

Not all is negative, however. The report commented that the May 2004 elections in India saw the defeat of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. This party was associated with a group of Hindu extremist nationalist organizations implicated in growing violence against religious minorities.

The new government, noted the commission, has pledged to reject any kind of religious intolerance and return the country to its pluralistic traditions. Some concerns remain, nevertheless, and the report noted that attacks on Christian churches and individuals continue, largely without an adequate reaction by authorities.

Laos, the report explained, has responded to concerns over religious liberty and has re-opened most of its closed churches, along with releasing almost all religious prisoners. As well, there has been a public denunciation of official campaigns of forced renunciation of faith.

In Georgia there has been a notable decrease in the number of reported incidents of violence against minority religious communities since the fall of the Shevardnadze government in late 2003. As well, the commission praised the sentencing in January 2005 of two of the leaders of these attacks.

Constitutions and Islam

The report also had a section on the situation in Iraq. The commission expressed its concern that the continuing violent attacks represent “a concerted effort to instigate an interreligious conflict among Muslims and between the Muslim and Christian communities in Iraq.”

The report urged that Iraqi institutions and laws, especially the drafting of a permanent constitution, incorporate human rights guarantees, including the right of every person to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief. “Such action would not undermine Iraq’s justifiable desire to ensure an independent constitution-drafting process, but rather infuse the process, as well as the parties involved, with a clear understanding of international obligations regarding the minimum human rights standards,” the commission argued.

In addition to Iraq, other Muslim countries are taking action concerning their constitutional framework. In 2004 Afghanistan adopted a new permanent constitution. And in Sudan a new interim constitution is expected as part of a peace agreement between the government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement.

To provide more information on the situation in the Islamic world, the commission made a survey of constitutional texts in 44 Muslim countries, released in March 2005. The study found that even though the countries reviewed share the common denominator of having a majority Muslim population there is a broad assortment
of constitutional arrangements.

Political structures range from republics with Islam as the official state religion, to secular states with strict separation of religion and state. In fact, more than half of the world’s Muslim population, which the commission estimated at over 1.3 billion, lives in countries that are neither Islamic republics nor that have declared Islam to be the state religion.

The study found a wide diversity on the role of Islam and guarantees for human rights even in states where Islam is the religion of the state. In addition, a number of constitutions of predominantly Muslim countries incorporate or refer to international human rights norms.

“When respected, freedom of religion or belief is one of the cornerstones of stable, democratic,
productive societies,” the report noted. This is a goal that has still to be reached in many countries.

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